CRIME TRAVELLING

A week consisting of Brexit negotiations threatening to rival ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ in the long, drawn-out tedium stakes; a red sky overturning the old farmer’s saying by transforming it into an end-of-the-world-is-nigh omen; and our boys in blue plumbing unprecedented depths, taking to the streets in fancy dress as a contrived distraction from rising crime figures (‘social workers with Tasers’ as someone aptly described them on Twitter). Jesus, it’s no wonder I’ve sought escapism when it comes to offline downtime; and I’ve taken a route which is my own reliable visual equivalent of comfort food.

The last time this country felt this grim for many was at the end of the 1970s, and though the Winter of Discontent even impinged upon my pre-pubescent existence via a lorry drivers’ strike affecting the distribution of comics to the local newsagent’s, I can honestly say I’d rather be there than here. Having never passed my Tardis driving test, I have to make do with travelling back in time via the dependable DVD box-set; current flavour-of-the-month is the BBC’s downbeat gumshoe drama from 1979/80, ‘Shoestring’. The series accurately captures the weariness at the winding-down of what had been a testing decade, yet there’s something undeniably appealing about its atmosphere of stoic refusal to succumb to the kind of histrionic panic that runs through contemporary discourse – a resignation, yes, but not a surrender.

The title character of Eddie Shoestring, played with charismatic understatement by the then-unknown Trevor Eve, is undoubtedly a victim of his times, though triumphing over his demons without pleading for sympathy epitomises a certain unfussy British characteristic we appear to have subsequently lost. Eddie is recovering from a mental breakdown that occurred during his career ‘working in computers’; his rehabilitation at a clinic saw him devour pulp fiction, which in turn opened up a new career path as a private detective. Successfully utilising what would now probably be diagnosed as latent autism, Eddie’s unique talents are spotted by a local radio station; Radio West’s debonair manager Don Satchley (played by British acting stalwart Michael Medwin) senses a novel ratings winner and hires Eddie as the station’s ‘private ear’, inviting listeners to request Eddie’s services in the hope the cases will eventually make for an intriguing broadcast.

Eddie lodges with a sexy legal eagle called Erica, with whom he has a casual on-off bedtime relationship, though the viewer gets the impression Eddie really isn’t bothered too much by any of that stuff. Work is what really brings out the best in him. His slovenly appearance and cavalier disregard for authority complements his genuine compassion for the little people whose problems he endeavours to solve; and, like the unfairly-maligned ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ before it, it is the little people that ‘Shoestring’ focuses on. Contrasting with the macho bluster of ‘The Sweeney’ (which ended the year before ‘Shoestring’ debuted) and ‘The Professionals’ (which ITV scheduled in direct competition to the Beeb’s unconventional sleuth), the series has a human and humane regard for those who are often overlooked in life, let alone TV dramas. Character is central to the plot of each episode, and the lead is a fascinating, vulnerable individual ideal for a premise that wouldn’t work with a Regan, a Carter, a Bodie or a Doyle.

The series was based and mainly shot in the West Country, providing a refreshing alternative to the usual London locations then predominant in home-grown drama; there may be a trumpeted trend to shoot series outside of the capital on television today, though Manchester and Cardiff are shot through the same Dystopian lens as London, portraying them with indistinguishable urban clichés which makes one wonder why film crews bother exiting Watford Gap. ‘Shoestring’ also gives a distinctly British twist to the quirky private eye genre which was almost exclusively American at the time, with the likes of Rockford and Columbo still on their original runs. It gave early breaks to actors who would carve out glittering careers (I spotted Daniel Day-Lewis in one episode) as well as established actors nearing the end of their careers – and their lives – such as Harry H Corbett and Diana Dors.

‘Shoestring’ occasionally dips its toes into the pop culture of the era in which it was made. Toyah Willcox features heavily in an episode, playing a ‘punk singer’, ably assisted by an impressive supporting cast including the likes of Gary Holton, Peter Dean, Christopher Biggins, Lynda Bellingham and even Mick Jagger’s brother Chris. The only other series at the turn-of-the 80s that evokes the period with the same blend of charm and cynicism is ‘Minder’, which coincidentally aired for the first time that same autumn of 1979. However, unlike Dennis Waterman and George Cole’s vehicle, which was something of a slow-burner, ‘Shoestring’ was an overnight success, undeniably aided by the ITV strike of August-October 1979, which gave the series a massive ratings head-start when ITV was its sole competitor.

Yes, the cars – Eddie drives a battered Cortina estate – and the fashions are portals to another country, as is the soundtrack; with its radio station setting, the series is peppered with hits from 1979/80, a chart era especially rich in memorable pop. But there’s something about ‘Shoestring’ that makes it particularly attractive in 2017. It’s not just the look and the sound of the series; it’s also the fact that the characters are likeable and believable. A lot of that is down to the cast, but it’s also down to the solid writing from experienced telly hacks as well as skilled newcomers, both graduates from the BBC when its role was that of a creative university, training talent to do what it said on the tin with panache and personality. There’s a welcome absence of that strain of TV writing today that bludgeons and baffles viewers with storylines trying hard to be clever and complex when they’re actually self-indulgent exercises in abysmally emulating Nordic and American styles.

Trevor Eve’s theatrical and cinematic ambitions curtailed ‘Shoestring’ after just two seasons, and even though Eve retrospectively regrets he didn’t make at least one more series, the fact the programme ended when it did preserves it in a specific moment we shall never see again – a moment in which milkmen were still on the dawn streets to witness a murder, and a moment when private eyes couldn’t be contacted when out on an investigation until they passed a phone-box and rang home. So, tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1979, in the company of Eddie Shoestring.

© The Editor

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DON’T HAVE NIGHTMARES

Catchphrases generally tend to be the province of comedians and sitcom characters, though they can also be attached to public figures, usually by impressionists looking for an angle. It’s questionable that Denis Healey ever said ‘Silly Billy’, and most now know that Humphrey Bogart’s famous line from ‘Casablanca’ wasn’t ‘Play it again, Sam’; but these things stick. One catchphrase that everyone of a certain age will always associate with the TV programme it sprang from is rarely misquoted because it was genuinely said at the end of each show – ‘Don’t have nightmares’.

If the announcement that the BBC is axing ‘Crimewatch’ after 33 years on air will provoke any protests, they will probably only be half-hearted and rooted in misguided nostalgia, as often happens whenever a long-running series that stretches back in the collective memory ends. But the audience figures speak volumes because few people are watching the series anymore; I don’t think I’ve seen it myself since the edition following the murder of Jill Dando in 1999. At its peak years during the 80s, it could attract upwards of 14 million viewers, though few shows can attract those kinds of numbers today anyway. However, as the premise of the programme has centred on audience interaction from its 1984 debut, an appeal to catch a criminal made before 14 million means the chances of the crook being caught are greater than if four and five million are appealed to; and those are the viewing figures the show can boast now.

During my recent meanderings on YouTube, I came across a Yorkshire Television continuity clip from the turn-of-the 80s; the ads were suddenly – and somewhat dramatically – interrupted by a caption on a black background that read ‘POLICE MESSAGE’. The announcer appealing for help in locating a missing teenager did so in a fittingly sober tone that was quite a contrast with the usual light one adopted when introducing ‘Paint Along with Nancy’. I guess, pre-‘Crimewatch’, such occasional announcements served the same purpose as the old ‘SOS’ broadcasts did on the radio airwaves, and stumbling upon the clip almost 40 years on was a reminder of how television once did what social media can do today.

The clip also demonstrated that this aspect of the medium could be expanded in a classic example of TV’s public service remit, one it still regarded as important even as late as the 1980s. Shaw Taylor’s ‘Police 5’ had pioneered a similar idea in the ITV London region since 1962, though the fact the series wasn’t networked and only ran for five minutes at a time limited its ability to do what ‘Crimewatch’ aimed to; that said, Taylor’s own catchphrase, ‘Keep ‘em peeled’, became more well-known than the series itself due to it being repeated on numerous 70s sitcoms produced in the capital. ‘Crimewatch’ (or ‘Crimewatch UK’ as it was originally known) would be broadcast nationwide and would run for an hour.

Outside of ordinary people making fools of themselves on ‘The Generation Game’, the general public’s involvement in TV broadcasting was rare in the 70s. BBC2 had its ‘Open Door’ strand, in which a brief platform was given to anyone who had something to say – though they usually appeared to be unhinged eccentrics representing some bonkers fringe political party – and there was always ‘That’s Life’. But instant interaction was more or less unheard of until the debut of ‘The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ in 1976. The backroom girls manning the phone-lines were in full view of the viewers, and those viewers (if they were lucky) could end up speaking live on the telephone to whichever star Noel Edmonds was interviewing. If this idea could be developed and transplanted to a serious factual programme, there could well be an appetite for it, though it took a further eight years before the BBC decided to try out the experiment.

Concerns that the police as well as victims of crime might be reluctant to share their stories with millions of viewers proved unfounded as ‘Crimewatch’ was an overnight success. Choosing trusted and dependable broadcasters Nick Ross and Sue Cook to anchor the show helped ease viewers into the unfamiliar format, though its formula soon caught on and became as recognisable as anything else on TV. The reconstructions of crimes using unknown actors were spared the melodramatic background music used on the likes of ‘America’s Most Wanted’, but the bad acting could undeniably make them unintentionally entertaining, despite the seriousness of the crime. When a routine by comedian Peter Kay years later drew upon the tedium of witness voiceovers accompanying these reconstructions, his audience groaned in unison, so familiar was the programme’s hallmark style by then.

There was a certain charm to the woodenness of police officers addressing the public on the show, emanating as they did from an age before media training was regarded as an important element of the job. But the absence of slickness on the part of Chief Supt. David Hatcher and his sidekick PC Helen Phelps reflected the fact that this was a programme in which professional presentation was secondary to getting results. That, at its height of popularity, the show drew in the kind of audiences that would today only gather round their sets to watch a talent show finale or an England World Cup match is another aspect of how the priorities of TV, both in terms of programme-makers and programme-watchers, have altered since 1984.

Unlike other factual crime shows on British TV today, which use the sensationalistic template of ‘America’s Most Wanted’ in chronicling a crime (and are usually presented by the loathsome Mark Williams Thomas), ‘Crimewatch’ wasn’t there to pander to the same vicarious impulses that keep the memoirs of cockney gangsters riding high in the bestsellers’ lists. It had a valid purpose. 1 in 3 ‘Crimewatch’ appeals have led to an arrest, whilst 1 in 5 have led to a conviction; of a third of cases solved via a ‘Crimewatch’ appeal, half have been as a direct result of viewers’ calls. In its first 25 years, the show had a part to play in the capture of 57 murderers as well as 53 sex offenders and 18 paedophiles.

Apparently, the series was most recently presented by Jeremy Vine, which is really the kiss of death for any programme; but the television medium as it exists in this century is a different beast to the one it was in the last century – as is the country itself. Nick Ross left ‘Crimewatch’ ten years ago; when did your nightmares begin?

© The Editor

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MUSICAL YOUTH

A paragraph from the previous post provoked this one, and if you haven’t read it, where have you been? Anyway, let’s go back 30 years. Actually, I’d rather not; if 2017 is pretty grim, I can’t say I rated 1987 much at the time either and it doesn’t acquire a nostalgic glow the further away I travel from it. The stuff I cared about then – general popular culture and pop music in particular – was, in my opinion, rubbish; there were a couple of contemporary exceptions, but I was a scholar of what is now referred to as ‘Classic Rock’. I also extended my appreciation of the recent past to then-unfashionable 70s pop such as Abba and The Bee Gees, acts who had yet to receive the kitsch makeover the next generation would give them. The arrogance of youth told me I could do better than what the present was offering me as a record-buyer.

My mate Paul played the guitar; I wrote the lyrics. Between us, we moulded them into melodies which I sang; Paul provided the riffs. He and I shared a wavelength neither of us shared with anyone else; Paul was the first friend I’d had who looked like he could’ve been in the Stones rather than Curiosity Killed The Cat, and we sparred off one another in our attempts to resemble rock stars. He was as much of an outsider in his part of town as I was in mine, and we’d both experienced run-ins with ‘the beer monsters’; city centre streets may have been low on knife crime and acid attacks in the 80s, but you still had to watch yourself. It was easier when there were two of you.

We’d spend virtually every weekday ensconced in Paul’s bedroom at his mum’s house, listening to a range of LPs from the extensive record collection he’d amassed during his brief stint in 9-to-5 Land. We studied and absorbed the masters; it was our university. Eventually, I’d produce my exercise book crammed with lyrics, he’d tune up his acoustic guitar, and we’d devote the next few hours to putting a song together; if it was any good, we’d record it on his ghetto blaster and improve it the following day before moving onto the next one. We were hungry to make our mark, and though we may have been dreaming the dreams many music-obsessed young men dream, we were prepared to put the work in.

After several months of assembling a songbook, we decided to locate other musicians, and there was no shortage of venues to visit where we could check them out. Unfortunately, it took time to find like-minds; commitment was hard to come across. Rehearsal space wasn’t, but as Paul and me were both signing-on, it could be a stretch to pay for it. A room above a pub with an unsavoury reputation as the hostelry of choice for football hooligans was the one we eventually settled on because it was the one we could afford. By then, we’d acquired a bass-player and drummer, though it had taken well over a year of searching and numerous disappointments before we got there.

Our first gig was on the bill of an all-day event featuring dozens of local bands, staged in one of the many pubs that packed the punters in by hosting live music. In a dense fog of fags, and fuelled by booze that was probably less than a quid a glass, we took to the stage, collectively crapping ourselves. We had the usual repertoire of crowd-pleasing standards, such as ‘Teenage Kicks’, but primarily showcased our own material. We were rather under-rehearsed, but went on in the late afternoon, by which time the well-sozzled audience greeted every act with enthusiasm. I can’t honestly remember how many numbers we played; I mainly remember wearing a second-hand psychedelic jacket, which a lady complimented me on – the first such compliment a lady had ever paid me. It wasn’t a bad day.

We recorded a demo tape – tape being the operative word, as the songs went straight from reel-to-reel acetate to cassette; the recording studio cost what must have been a small fortune to us then, and we had to record and mix four songs with the clock rapidly ticking towards the end of the time we could pay for. We didn’t sound bad, and it’s undoubtedly invigorating when you hear yourself in top-notch quality sound for the first time. The end result received reviews in regional fanzines and was optimistically dispatched along the tried-and-tested route that led to John Peel and the music industry. We played a few more gigs: one as support to another local band in another pub, one on our own (in another pub), and one on the bill of another all-day event – this time in a pub car-park. That gig turned out to be our last.

We had the impossible task of following a folk duo singing a song called ‘F**k Off, Yuppie Scum’ to the tune of ‘Knees-Up, Mother Brown’; but we were such a shambles on the final performance that I actually apologised to the audience who were too pissed in the summer sun to even notice. We hadn’t rehearsed in weeks. The drummer was still at school and this was just a hobby to him; the bass-player enjoyed jamming but had no real interest in being a professional; and Paul was smoking a lot of dope, perhaps to cope with the fact we were going nowhere after all the work he and I had put into it. Our friendship survived, but our musical partnership didn’t. We never shared the same vision thereafter; I got into the nascent Dance scene, whereas he preferred chilling out to ‘Astral Weeks’. We’d had high hopes, but we’d crashed and we’d burned.

Paul and I had probably squandered twelve months searching for other musicians because we were so determined to do it the traditional way we revered. Today, we wouldn’t need them; we’d have the technology to create a ‘virtual’ band and we could record on bedroom PCs without having to bankrupt ourselves for studio time, uploading our endeavours online to a worldwide audience. We wouldn’t have to bombard record companies or the music press because neither exists anymore; but we’d struggle to play live because the gig circuit has gone along with the pubs that were vital to it. We also wouldn’t have the dole to subsidise our musical education and we wouldn’t have the money to invest in instruments.

They weren’t great days. They were frustrating and disappointing. We gave our all to something that eluded us, and whilst it genuinely doesn’t bother me now that we didn’t make it, it always seems a shame that all the dynamic verve and energy we exuded was drained from us in such in a depressingly crushing manner – though we weren’t the first and we weren’t the last either. Les McQueen from ‘The League of Gentlemen’ (guitarist with Crème Brulée, a 70s band that never made it) would look back by saying ‘It’s a shit business; I’m glad I’m out of it’; but I don’t regret doing it. Everyone should give it a go and then gracefully exit the stage when it all goes tits up. It’s an experience that prepares you for the rest of your life.

© The Editor

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STATION TO STATION (4)

The final moments of the BBC Home Service took place during the final moments of Friday 29 September 1967; David Dunhill, the announcer, made reference to the soon-to-be Radio 1 DJ (and soon-to-be disgraced) Chris Denning having just appeared on BBC2’s ‘Late Night Line-Up’ wearing a T-shirt bearing the words ‘Death to the Home Service’, yet Dunhill assured listeners that the process of rechristening the following day would be akin to being ‘like a bride on the eve of her wedding; we go on being the same person, we hope; but we’ll never again have the same name’. It was a fittingly cosy analogy and one that seemed entirely in keeping with the image the Home Service had in the public imagination – one that typified everything antiquated and irrelevant about BBC radio to the generation tuning in to the pirates.

It wasn’t merely the addition of Radio 1 to the mix and the rebranding of the established three stations that spelt the death-knell for the Home Service; the imminent onset of BBC local radio would also rob it of one of its traditional functions. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the BBC had merged its National Programme and Regional Programme radio stations and the result of the marriage was the Home Service, based in London but peppered throughout the day with regional opt-outs from either Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow or Belfast – depending where you were listening. This hallmark of the station survived the birth of Radio 4 until the countrywide spread of local radio made it redundant; the last such opt-out on Radio 4 was in Devon and Cornwall as late as 1982.

After the war, the reorganisation of the BBC’s radio network that saw the arrival of the Light Programme removed many entertainment shows from the Home Service, though the station continued to host the likes of ‘ITMA’ as well as ‘The Goons’. In fact, for all its reputation as a carrier of serious news programming, the Home never entirely lost its entertainment elements, with adventure serial ‘Dick Barton’ especially appealing to young listeners who had their own show in ‘Children’s Hour’; sitcoms such as the long-running ‘All Gas and Gaiters’ and ‘The Men from The Ministry’ even lasted into the station’s incarnation as Radio 4. Factual mainstays that could also be classed as entertainment like ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’ survived the transition too and are still with us, as are news and current affairs institutions such as ‘Today in Parliament’, ‘The World at One’, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ and, of course, ‘Today’.

As we have already seen with Radio 2 and Radio 3, many of the changes that occurred when the BBC stations were renamed were essentially superficial. For one thing, daytime Radio 4 was lumbered with its most unwanted inheritance from the Home Service during its early years, BBC schools broadcasting. Glancing through the musty pages of a Radio Times issue from November 1969, just two years into Radio 4, the station’s morning and afternoon schedule has schools programming from 9.20am till noon, then following ‘Listen with Mother’ at 2.00 there’s a further hour of it – an arrangement that’s all-but inconceivable to a modern-day R4 listener. This state of affairs frustrated more than one Radio 4 controller, though the schools service ironically provided my main contact with the station in the 70s.

By the beginning of the 1973/74 term, schools (as well as adult education programmes) had switched to Radio 4’s VHF wavelength; at a time when most in long pants were still listening on Medium Wave, it freed-up the schedules at last and facilitated the transfer of ‘Woman’s Hour’ from Radio 2 to what seemed to be its natural home. The next big change came in November 1978, when all four national stations shifted around the dial; Radio 4 swapped places with Radio 2, moving from Medium to Long Wave. The change also marked the beginning of 4 as a truly national station with the end of all-but a tiny few regional variations and the debut of the late lamented ‘UK Theme’ to open proceedings every morning; meanwhile, the Shipping Forecast sailed into a more conducive harbour at the same time.

It had taken a decade for Radio 4 to emerge from the long shadow cast by its predecessor, but it appeared to have finally managed it; by the 80s, more listeners were beginning to tune in to FM, which accelerated the relocation of schools broadcasting to the new Radio 5 in 1990. Perhaps the last lingering legacy of the Home Service remit had been dispensed with at last. The FM and LW versions of Radio 4 only temporarily go their separate ways today with ‘Test Match Special’ and ‘Daily Service’.

For my generation, and the generations after, names like the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme have a quaint, monochrome magic to them, belonging as they do to a lost, post-war 50s world that disappeared before our time. Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, on the other hand, have always sounded contemporary. All four stations predate me by just a couple of months, so it’s no wonder. Of the four, I cannot but deny Radio 4 is my preference and has been for around a decade, though I acknowledge it can be far from perfect.

There’s a tendency to over-egg the ‘right-on’ pudding on occasions; equally, whenever those hideous words ‘The Kardashians’ threaten to gatecrash the environs of ‘Woman’s Hour’ or ‘Front Row’, I switch to Radio 3. Radio 4 produces many superb programmes on pop culture (Saturday evening’s ‘Archive on 4’, for example), but there are already enough – more than enough – media mouthpieces for the afterbirths of Reality TV without R4 following suit. It’s supposed to provide an alternative with a brain rather than half of one.

After Radio 2, Radio 4 is the most listened-to station in the country, which is impressive considering what a radical counterpoint it can be to the overabundance of what the Americans refer to as Top 40 stations. The thought that the erudite interlude of ‘In Our Time’ can attract more listeners than some waffling wanker on Crass FM – the sort of white noise that serves as the in-car soundtrack of taxi-drivers – gives one hope that all is not lost. Fifty years old today, Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 appear to have provided a cradle-to (not quite) grave listening experience for my entire lifetime; and that lifetime would have very been different without them. Many happy returns.

© The Editor

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STATION TO STATION (3)

Those of you who take note of the time of day these posts are dispatched will by now have gathered I’m prone to burning the midnight oil; living in a household where neighbours are a thin wall away, however, requires a degree of tact in terms of background sounds. The usual routine has always been to leave the World Service on come the Radio 4 closedown at 1.00am, though the volume is so low that what the voices are saying is generally inaudible. Of late, I’ve been switching over to Radio 3 to soundtrack my jottings in the wee small hours instead. As an alternative, it’s refreshingly soothing, comprising piano pieces in the Erik Satie mould, string quartets or choral music. They’re loud enough to absorb, but quiet enough not to disrupt anyone else’s slumber; I only wish my recently departed ‘Club DJ’ neighbour had considered a similar course of post-midnight audio action.

As a child, Radio 3 was the national radio station I knew the least about; Radio 4 was almost as alien to my ears, though I do remember my dad regularly listening to ‘Brain of Britain’, from which he no doubt sourced questions and answers for the pub quizzes he organised. In old-school terms, Radio 1 was for the terminal working-classes; Radio 2 was for the working-classes whose social mobility scooters had steered them away from the backyard privy; Radio 4 was for the middle-classes; and Radio 3 was for…well, who? The aristocracy? Pipe-smoking dons in tweed jackets? It had an enigmatic mystery to me because I never heard it, though no doubt its previous incarnation as the Third Programme would have been just as mysterious to ears weaned on Tony Blackburn.

It’s a measure of how much of a special case the Third Programme was that when BBC Radio underwent its great rebranding shake-up on 30 September 1967 and added Radio 1 to the long-standing trio of stations it was really only the daytime Music Programme, occupying the Third’s frequency since 1965, that became Radio 3. In the evening, it was business as usual with the Third continuing to provide cultural riches as well as Network Three’s educational ‘Study Session’; the station also retained its Sports Service strand on an afternoon (which included ‘Test Match Special’). As far as Radio 3 after dark was concerned, however, the impression given was that the station remained a highbrow night-school behind the various doors of which were numerous means of self-improvement; it was still the worthiest of broadcasting endeavours.

There had been more opposition to tinkering with the Third than accompanied the facelift of the BBC’s other two radio stations in 1967; it was viewed by many as an artistic oasis that deserved preservation. Even the ‘hit’ classical music composers like old Ludwig Van and Mozart were more familiar on the Home Service than on the Third, which revelled in the esoteric and uncommercial; there were also fears the station would lose its high proportion of spoken word programming when rebranded as Radio 3. Concerns that Radio 3 would effectively become Classic FM a quarter-of-a-century early were perhaps responsible for the compromise that kept the Third intact for another two-and-a-half years. However, the impact of 1969’s ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’ report finally saw the Third vanish from the schedules in April 1970 and a full-time Radio 3 at last.

The station did gain ‘Choral Evensong’ from Radio 4 in 1970, with Radio 3 being a more fitting home for a series that has been on air since 1926; in return, political coverage became the exclusive province of Radio 4; any spoken word broadcasts on 3 would henceforth focus solely on the Arts, including plays and poetry. Many had worried the latter would be lost, as the Third Programme had been a major platform for contemporary poetry – virtually the only one in the field of radio. Periodical panic over Radio 3’s future wasn’t helped by the fact that the BBC’s monopoly of the airwaves was coming to an end; but there were few signs the ILR network (which spread across the country from 1973 onwards) intended to compete with Radio 3; as a consequence, its unique status seemed secure.

The station was an early beneficiary of VHF stereo broadcasting, something its playlist could have been designed for; its extensive coverage of the Proms and other major classical music events also often went hand-in-hand with simultaneous broadcasts on BBC2, which at the time was the nearest BBC TV had to an in-vision Radio 3. To the casual radio listener, the Third Programme may have had the reputation of being unfathomably intellectual, but Radio 3 retained the ‘elitist’ tag in the popular imagination simply by virtue of specialising in genres of music that wouldn’t threaten to gatecrash ‘Top of the Pops’. It’s worth noting, though, that Prog Rock would occasionally surface on the Radio 3 schedules in the 70s, paving the way for widening the musical scope that eventually encompassed ‘World Music’. Jazz has also been a key component from the beginning, as it had been in the latter days of the Third.

The arguments for and against the continued existence of a radio station with a relatively small (albeit passionate) listening audience are the same as those that surrounded Radio 3’s predecessor. One former managing director of BBC Radio had described the station as ‘a private playground for elitists to indulge in cerebral masturbation’ during its early years, while those to whom Radio 3 remains the same artistic oasis as the Third was before it are quick to protest whenever a new controller of the station implements ‘controversial’ changes, such as the arrival of Paul Gambaccini as a presenter in 1995; his presence was regarded by some as a populist move to prevent migration to Classic FM.

As we all – well, most of us – contribute towards the funding of the BBC, I think it only right some of that licence fee is diverted into niche broadcasting that doesn’t have the audience of a ‘Strictly’ or a ‘Bake-Off’. If we all pay in, we should all have our own tastes catered for, even if the tastes of the many naturally count for more in respect of how the money is dished out than the tastes of the few. The Third Programme or Radio 3 was never destined to be a ratings winner, but so what? Some things in broadcasting (and life) count for more.

© The Editor

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STATION TO STATION (2)

Being a notoriously dour Scotsman, Lord Reith’s famous proclamation that the BBC’s role was to inform, educate and entertain meant that the last of that trio wouldn’t have got much of a look in had Reith’s tenure as DG lasted way beyond 1938. His austere Presbyterian idea of entertainment would have driven a war-weary listening audience away from the BBC in their droves during the 1950s; they’d already turned to Radio Luxembourg for a lighter evening in front of the wireless before the war, and chances are they’d have continued to do so had not Reith’s successors at the helm reorganised the Beeb’s network when hostilities ceased in 1945.

Taking over from the General Forces Programme, the Light Programme debuted on the airwaves just two months after VE Day and quickly established itself as the most popular of the BBC stations for the next couple of decades. Whenever a documentary requires a piece of music to accompany footage of the 50s and wants to evoke a certain Home Counties ‘cosiness’, chances are the piece of music in question is the theme tune from a Light Programme mainstay such as ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘Workers’ Playtime’ or ‘Listen with Mother’. It’s also worth noting radio institutions like ‘The Archers’, ‘Woman’s Hour’ and ‘Pick of the Pops’ formed part of the Light Programme’s line-up along with a rash of memorable comedies such as ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ and ‘Round the Horne’. And then there was the music – fittingly light with soupy strings and melodies so unobtrusively polite they almost asked for permission to rent the airwaves. By the mid-60s, however, the music was the problem.

With the Beeb belatedly attempting to swing along with the rest of the 60s, the rebirth of radio on 30 September 1967 saw the teen pop offerings of the Light Programme shift over to the new Radio 1; what of Radio 2, though? How would it differ from the station it succeeded? Not that much, really, which I suppose was part of the strategy to hold onto the Light listeners. Amongst the offerings on Radio 2’s first day (a Saturday) were Pete Murray, Kenneth Horne, Max Jaffa, the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, Sidney Davey and his Orchestra – Light Programme veterans all. It seemed the only real change was the name.

Come Monday morning, though ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘Music Box’ and ‘Music While You Work’ had all vanished and the station shared the shows of Jimmy Young, Simon Dee and Pete Brady with Radio 1, ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ (now ‘The Dales’) clung on, as did ‘Woman’s Hour’ – albeit considerably longer than ‘The Dales’. Musically, the presence of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force, Frank Chacksfield, and the wonderfully-named Reginald Leopold and the Palm Court Orchestra suggested familiar fare. Dotted through the schedule of the first Radio 2 week were other stalwarts of the Light such as ‘Family Favourites’, ‘Sing Something Simple’, ‘Top of the Form’, ‘The Navy Lark’, ‘Any Questions?’, ‘Friday Night is Music Night’, and plenty of sport, which remained a fixture of Radio 2 until the launch of Five Live in the early 90s.

There was a good deal of channel crossing between Radio 2 and Radio 4 in terms of genres and repeats in the early days, as there had been between the Light Programme and the Home Service; there was a distinct lack of identity where both stations were concerned, something that led to ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, the BBC’s far-reaching 1969 review of its radio output. As a result of the changes recommended in the report, the four networks began to morph into recognisably individual entities from the early 70s onwards. When Radio 1 transferred Jimmy Young and Terry Wogan to Radio 2 around the same time, the classic morning schedule had finally taken shape.

Although a few quizzes and comedies lingered on 2, along with a solitary soap (‘Waggoners’ Walk’), my own childhood memory of the station is of its playlist, largely derived from staying at my grandparents’ house in the 70s. For me, it presented a curious alternative to the pop diet of Radio 1 so familiar at home and served as an introduction to Easy Listening, Jazz, Big Bands and the song stylists of the pre-Rock n Roll era, none more so than Sinatra. By the late 70s, a combination of Simon Bates and Punk (awkward bedfellows, to say the least) had seen my dad switch his listening allegiance from 1 to 2, something the soccer coverage on the latter helped.

Aside from Wogan and Young, the voice I associate most with childhood exposure to Radio 2 is that of the superb football commentator, the late great Peter Jones; at a time when football coverage on TV was at a minimum unimaginable to today’s Sky subscribers, radio provided an essential service, and the theme tunes to ‘Sport on 2’ and ‘Sports Report’ respectively still evoke the old spirit of Saturdays for me as much as the sight of Tom Baker’s hat-&-scarf ensemble. When VHF – as FM radio was always called then – first appeared in our household, the wavelength was shared between 1 and 2, so any listen to a Radio 1 documentary in my teens was generally followed by a Radio 2 Jazz or Folk show.

The old joke about Radio 2, that it was a retirement home for Radio 1 DJs, is as relevant now as it ever was. Chris Evans, Jo Whiley, Zoe Ball, Sara Cox, Trevor Nelson and Simon Mayo were all still on Radio 1 twenty years ago, whereas they now comfortably slot in alongside ex-Radio 1 stars of a far older vintage such as Bob Harris, Johnnie Walker, Tony Blackburn, Paul Gambaccini and Steve Wright. However, the daytime playlist is usually geared towards listeners suddenly feeling nostalgic about their 20s for the first time, something that tends to creep in when people hit their 40s; therefore, the station’s presenters and musical selection reflect this for each generation. One thing Radio 2 has continued to do far more successfully than Radio 1 is to gently lower the average age of its audience every couple of decades.

In recent years, the blend of old and older broadcasters has helped make Radio 2 the nation’s most listened-to station and it appears to have finally shed its pipe & slippers image in the process. There does seem to be a worrying reliance on TV personalities presenting programmes, with Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady, Dermot O’Leary, Claudia Winkleman, Clare Balding, Craig Charles, Vanessa Feltz, Liza Tarbuck and the Partridge-esque Jeremy Vine all making the journey from television to radio; but former Radio 2 presenters who now reside in that great Broadcasting House in the sky, such as Terry Wogan and David Jacobs, also had a foot in both camps. And Radio 2 can still boast the archetypal broadcaster with a great face for radio, the indestructible Ken Bruce.

© The Editor

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STATION TO STATION (1)

A week from today will mark half-a-century since the day the nation’s stations received the most comprehensive facelift in their history; and, lest we forget, fifty years ago we only had three national radio stations. Yes, there were the pirates, though they – bar Caroline – were poised to sail away into the sunset; officially, the country had just the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme. There were no local BBC stations, and the Independent Local Radio network was still six years away. Once the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act sank the pirate ships, listeners were left with Luxembourg and its erratic reception if they sought an alternative to the BBC’s wireless output.

If one is to credit pirate radio with one thing it really should be giving the kiss of life to an ailing medium. From being very much the poor relation before the war, television had gathered pace with the arrival of ITV in 1955 and by the early 60s had usurped radio as the people’s choice. In response, all the BBC’s creative energies were directed towards TV and radio was left to its own devices, with only the Third Programme receiving special treatment courtesy of its high standing in the artistic community. Listening figures were plummeting and it didn’t help that, with Britain the epicentre of a pop revolution conquering the globe, BBC radio’s concession to the revolution was limited to the likes of ‘Saturday Club’ and ‘Pick of the Pops’.

Belated recognition that the BBC needed to reflect the changing climate on the airwaves led to plans being hatched for a new addition to the existing trio of national stations. But it wasn’t simply a case of the Beeb replicating what the pirates had done so successfully since 1964; Musicians Union rules over needle time meant the in-house BBC orchestras that provided so much of the light ‘mood music’ that had soundtracked the daily chores of the housewife for a couple of decades were not going to be disbanded overnight. A BBC idea of a pirate radio station risked being the aural equivalent of a pipe-smoking, cardigan-clad dad dancing around the living room to The Jimi Hendrix Experience or the Light Programme in a kaftan. Live music was going to be as much a staple of what became Radio 1 as spinning discs, though the fact this ruling eventually gave birth to the legendary Peel Sessions was pure serendipity.

With the new law enforcing the illegality of the pirates, the entire staff of DJs that had become household names to anyone under 25 were about to made redundant; by happy coincidence, a new employer was looking for a workforce with their precise qualifications. So it was that the cream of the pirate crop sat alongside a handful of veteran broadcasting stalwarts to pose for a photo that used to be re-staged every ten years until the participants started dying or ended up in prison. Radio 1 had recruited almost all the pirate DJs, and when the new station went on air with Caroline’s Tony Blackburn on 30 September 1967 – preceded by heavy promotion in the Radio Times and its ‘swinging’ front cover for the week – the pirate model sufficed for the first ninety minutes. The second programme on Radio 1 was ‘Junior Choice’ with Leslie Crowther.

The wavelength sharing between Radio 1 and its new sibling Radio 2 was scattered throughout that opening day and this continued to be the case for more or less the whole first decade of the station. The recurring term ‘As Radio 2’ in the Radio Times listings for Radio 1 was a regular feature that meant any hip ‘n’ groovy listener either had to endure Light Programme leftovers for a couple of hours in the middle of the schedule or simply switch off. Mind you, it’s worth remembering that DJs we all associate with Radio 2 – such as Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young – were part of the Radio 1 line-up in the beginning.

The schizophrenic nature of the station, viewed by many as a pale imitation of the pirates at best and little short of a charlatan at worst, helped prompt 1969’s landmark in-house report, ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, that sought to rectify the problems. By the early 70s, however, a generation too young to remember the pirates had taken to the station as it gradually grew into the familiar form those of us old enough can still recall, and listening figures reflected this.

The ‘star’ DJs such as Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Savile, Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis, Kenny Everett and ‘Emperor’ Rosko were all familiar faces as presenters of ‘Top of the Pops’, and the mutual appreciation society between BBC TV’s leading music show and Radio 1 benefitted both. In the 70s, the Radio 1 DJs were almost as famous as the pop stars whose careers they had the power to make or break – opening supermarkets, judging wet T-shirt contests, and drawing huge crowds when making prats of themselves on stage during the annual summer institution of the Radio 1 Roadshow. This was the heyday of the ‘Smashie and Nicey’ incarnation of Radio 1, though it also spanned the 80s; regardless of personnel changes, the mid-Atlantic accent, the bomber jacket and the cheesy persona had already been established as a mould, whether inhabited by Simon Bates or Bruno Brookes.

By the time of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s painfully accurate parody, the BBC was concerned that a radio station supposedly aimed at an audience in its teens and twenties had retained listeners of a much older age range that hadn’t followed the traditional migratory route to Radio 2. The call went out to Matthew Bannister and what followed was a traumatic period in which Radio 1 didn’t seem to know what it was (or who it was for) anymore. The old school were shown the door, and after the crash-and-burn era of Chris Evans, a semblance of stability returned to the station as it entered the 21st century.

I haven’t listened to Radio 1 for a good decade, so I can’t comment on its current state of health with any authority. Last time I tuned in, Chris Moyles was still the host of the breakfast show and Jo Whiley was still espousing all she regarded as ‘cool’ mid-morning. I stopped listening not necessarily because I found the music being played increasingly irritating, but because I simply couldn’t stand the prattling DJs. At the same time, I recognise this has always been a regular factor for the listener where Radio 1 is concerned, and probably always will be.

Over the next seven days, I intend to profile all four stations that arrived on our dials fifty years ago this week, so stay tuned for Radio 2…

© The Editor

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THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS

Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning 2011 fantasy comedy, ‘Midnight in Paris’, features a lead character (played by Owen Wilson) resident in the here and now, whose holiday in the French capital takes a dreamlike turn when he gets lost in the backstreets one evening and finds himself stumbling into the Paris of the 1920s. Magically entering the time when Paris was the cultural epicentre of the western world, he encounters the likes of Cocteau, Dali, Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and various other creative luminaries of the decade. As a fan of the present they inhabit, the character attempts to convince them of the riches he sees in their era.

The cleverest moment in the movie comes when Picasso’s lover Adriana expresses her own personal opinion that the real era to be in was the so-called La Belle Époque period of the late nineteenth century; when she and the lead character somehow manage to travel back there, some of that period’s key figures they meet, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas, are in agreement that the only age to have been alive was the Renaissance. ‘Midnight in Paris’ is not only one of Woody Allen’s finest recent cinematic outings; it also shrewdly points out that golden ages are retrospective labels tagged onto episodes of history after the event.

Unless we can look back on a particular phase of our own individual lifetimes and recognise we lived through a special period ourselves, many of us have a fascination with a specific era that took place before we were born. Personally, I would have enjoyed being a dandy during the Regency or perhaps a fashion photographer in Swinging London; but I don’t reflect on any time I’ve actually been resident in throughout my thirty years as an adult and hanker after it with rose-tinted nostalgia; I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed any of it. Whether I would have enjoyed the Regency or Swinging London any more isn’t an issue because I’ll never be there; however, it remains a felicitous fantasy.

Last week, a survey commissioned by the Resolution Foundation was published; the subjects of the survey were ‘Millennials’, i.e. anyone born between 1981 and 2000 (those born this century have their own hideous demographic nickname). The findings of the survey declared that one in three Millennials would rather have lived through the era their parents were young in, despite the fact that would mean they’d have been deprived of the electronic creature comforts life is apparently unimaginable without. Over 2,000 people were surveyed between the ages of 16 and 75 and the general agreement reached was that anyone young today will never achieve the same standard of life as that which their parents have enjoyed.

In this case, the yearning to have been alive thirty or forty years ago doesn’t stem from the obvious attractions of superior pop culture to participate in, but the more practical desires of being able to buy one’s home and having job security that can pay for one. In the survey, graduates were just as pessimistic about the future as those regarded as high-earners. 57% of the former were convinced the youth of today have a worse standard of living than their parents to look forward to; 55% of the latter (earning above £55,000 a year) agreed with them. When it came to lower earners (£20,000 or less), 44% shared the same belief. It would seem technological advances don’t add up to much more than expensive sedatives.

And yet – the supposed higher standard of living the parents of Millennials have attained didn’t land in their laps overnight. They had to work for it. Thrift is a word one doesn’t hear much these days, but it was employed by the young who wanted to get on in the 60s and 70s when they saw the doors to social mobility opening before them; there was an entrance fee, however. The heavy industry that existed on a nationwide scale for perhaps the first forty years after the end of the Second World War has been reduced to a small smattering of industrial outposts this century, but it was once one of the dominant employers of the country’s workforce; Millennials are spared that, at least; though maybe there was a greater sense of job satisfaction at the end of the working day when having emerged from a pit or a steel foundry than can be found in having cold-called strangers whilst sitting on one’s arse for eight hours.

Even if their parents’ generation received what seems to have been a greater reward for their endeavours, the hours were put in whatever colour the collar of the job; additional part-time work would augment the main wage along with night-school courses as a means of ascending the next rung of the ladder. Socialising would be rationed, with the occasional trip to the cinema or football enjoyed sparingly when money was being put aside for the long-term. If one had a car, chances were it would be a second (or third) hand banger; if one had a house, it would be fitted out with second (or third) hand furniture – and on HP at that; telephones were a relative luxury; television sets were rented; holidays, if taken at all, would invariably take place within the British Isles, erratic climate or no. If one wanted must-have household appliances, one had to save up for them; and other things were regarded as more important, anyway.

Make do and mend, making ends meet, living within one’s means – awful old phrases the credit card seemed to have magically banished from the nation’s vocabulary; consumerism has a lot to answer for, yes; but one could argue many of the disputes that crippled industry in the 70s and 80s were at times motivated by a craving for consumer goods that were being marketed more aggressively than ever before at that point. Today, there’s no need to strike for them; your flexible friend can get them for you and then you can show them off on social media. Debt, once such a shameful stigma, is commonplace below a certain age; and none of the money reserved for paying it off is going towards saving up for somewhere to live.

There’s no doubt the opportunities for social mobility have narrowed considerably, and many degrees now are not worth the paper they’re written on; working hours are long and pay is poor. But hardships are endured by all generations looking for a better life; whether or not that better life is there at the end of the hardship is another matter altogether. It might have been there in 1957, 1967 or 1977; is it in 2017?

© The Editor

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THE SUNDAY POST

‘Sunday Bloody Sunday really encapsulates the frustration of a Sunday. You wake up in the morning, you’ve got to read all the Sunday papers, the kids are running round, you’ve got to mow the lawn, wash the car, and you think – Sunday Bloody Sunday!’

Alan Partridge’s characteristic misinterpretation of the U2 song inspired by the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry inadvertently highlights how the so-called ‘Day of Rest’ traditionally had a unique identity of its own, the genuine oddity in the seven-day calendar; but does it retain its uniqueness in an age when many shops are open all week round and a generation has come of age without an awareness or experience of what Sundays used to represent to the majority? Well, perhaps in our minds more than in reality.

It’s only natural that we associate certain days of the week with our first exposure to them; what’s interesting is how these initial associations can colour our view of them for good, and what they once represented proves to be surprisingly durable. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to Sunday, our image of it remains to an extent frozen in childhood amber, or at least when Sunday is imminent. More often than not, the prospect of it coming round tends to produce a weary sigh. In retrospect, that one more precious day free from school – something that should have made it as exciting as a Saturday to wake-up to – seemed to be shrouded in such an incurably drab torpor is curious; maybe Sunday was Saturday’s perennially poor relation because we knew we’d be back at school the following day, and so much of it seemed to be preparing us for that inevitability because it was so bizarrely boring.

Unless one were a farmer, clergyman, foreign language student or devotee of creaky monochrome movies about the war, television was usually best avoided; even that ordinarily reliable provider of entertainment appeared impotent on Sunday and was only generally switched-on in the middle of the afternoon so dad could watch ITV’s regional football show. The radio grabbed the spotlight from the telly as a consequence: Ed Stewpot and his set-in-stone set-list of prehistoric nursery ditties – ‘The Laughing Policeman’, ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’, ‘Nellie the Elephant’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ et al – sound-tracked the Sunday morning experience for more than one generation.

Jimmy Savile’s ‘Old Record Club’ enlivened the early afternoon with its top ten replays from the 60s, sparking nostalgia in parents and introducing kids to classics that contrasted with the more familiar contemporary chart sounds; and as for the top 40, that would dominate tea-time listening, even if the fact that the new chart had already been covered three days before on TOTP robbed it of any drama. Still, knowing which position one’s favourite records were at made recording them onto audiotape easier (a practice that may have ‘killed music’, but came in handy when pocket-money only stretched to one single from Woolie’s per fortnight).

But such aural distractions couldn’t wrench Sunday away from the strangely soporific rituals that really made it so distinctive from every other day. This usually began with a couple of newspapers popping through the letterbox – thicker and more expensive than the weekday dailies; many households had a healthy schizophrenia when it came to Sunday reading habits. One paper would usually be the trashy titillation of the News of the World/Sunday Mirror/Sunday People brand, the kind I remember being full of call-girl confessions, Rod Stewart’s latest blonde and Princess Margaret’s latest beau; the other would tend to be the more sombre Sunday Times/Observer type, with one balancing out the other and establishing an odd equilibrium as mum and dad chose their weapons whilst defiantly remaining in bed. Of course, for those raised in a religious household, the church still played a major part in the Sunday routine – either the morning service, evensong, or the insidious institution of Sunday School, seemingly established so that mum and dad could engineer the arrival of a little brother or sister.

As far as secular upbringings went, however, Sunday was a day in which the whole family realised the advantages of spending the rest of the week leading their own lives; everyone appeared to resent the presence of everyone else. In the case of mum and dad, both eagerly embraced their designated roles; for him, this meant washing the car or attending to DIY; for her, this meant ironing or sticking a roast in the oven, where it would cook on a low light for what seemed like about six months, its aroma sweeping through the house with the creeping stealth of mustard gas and seeping into the bricks and mortar like Oxo-flavoured napalm. Occasionally, there would be variations to the routine, but even these couldn’t provoke any emotion other than shoulder-shrugging resignation.

Most of these centred around a ‘ride out’ in the car, a depressing excursion through a desolate landscape that bordered on post-apocalyptic, a journey that either led to a local beauty spot rendered ugly by rotten weather, a minor stately home, the stultifying tedium of the garden centre – and the fact that this emporium of inertia was the only shop open for business somehow intensified Sunday’s terminal dullness – or grandma’s house, where sometimes cousins would call and there would at least be an opportunity to indulge in much-needed play.

Play! Ah, yes – the one saving grace of Sunday. The generations starved of mass-marketed virtual-stimulation turned to their imaginations and transformed their uninspiring surroundings with little in the way of corporate assistance. Such activities could alleviate boredom until boredom intervened again via a bath and supper in the company of Esther Rantzen and Doc Cox. With school to look forward to in the morning, Sunday had felt like a lacklustre prologue to the resumption of the norm, a bridge between the compassionate leave of Saturday and the re-imprisonment of Monday.

It’s cruelly ironic that John Major, a man who romanticised the mythical Albion image of a Sunday, was the Prime Minister who delivered the killer blow to it. The passing of the Sunday Trading law in 1994 enabled high-street chain-stores to open their doors and facilitated the rise of out-of-town retail parks, finally making Sundays resemble every other day, at least in terms of the consumer society. There isn’t time for boredom on a Sunday anymore, and whilst many would regard that as cause for celebration, others might argue that the loss of the archaic eccentricities that once made Sunday such a unique day are worthy of mourning – even if they were bloody boring.

© The Editor

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SATURDAY MATINEE

Even today, when the majority of mainstream sports have switched allegiances to the pay-per-view big bucks of subscription satellite broadcasters, Saturdays still constitute the one odds-on cert of the week when those who resent their licence fee being squandered on sport get rather hot under the collar. Step back in time three or four decades, however, and we have all sporting events spread across the two BBC channels and ITV. Even the sports that the Digger’s empire has held the live rights of for so long that it’s hard to imagine them being screened on mainstream telly now – the most obvious being cricket – had to be assimilated into rather crammed schedules alongside the non-sporting shows. Makes you wonder how they managed it within such a narrow window, but they did.

And let us not forget that every Saturday, spanning the almighty broadcasting chasm from lunchtime to teatime, both BBC1 and ITV handed over roughly five hours to non-stop sport. ‘Grandstand’ and ‘World of Sport’ had complete control of that time slot, as fixed and set in stone as the school broadcasts were on weekdays. If it was one of those drizzly, dreary afternoons that kept the bike locked in the shed, what alternative was there on the box? An afternoon institution by the name of Saturday Cinema on BBC2 – the sole alternative; if you didn’t like sport, you were provided with a glorious cinematic education.

There was a rigid rule in place up until around the middle of the 1980s that kept films with a shorter vintage than five years away from TV screens – ‘Cabaret’, for example (released: 1972), didn’t receive its British television premiere until 1978. The way that British TV dealt with this embargo was to give the kiss of life to the Golden Age of Hollywood. At a time when monochrome shows from the 60s were being junked because nobody in television believed the public, who had forked-out small fortunes for colour TV sets, would tolerate black & white broadcasts anymore, Saturday afternoons on BBC2 were a sanctuary for movies that spurned Technicolor in favour of a lush cinematography that manufactured a unique illusion of the real world in fifty shades of silver, one unlike anything on offer in the expensive disaster blockbusters at the local fleapit.

For those of us who hadn’t lived through the realities of the 30s and 40s, the interpretation of it that we garnered from Saturday Cinema was of fire escapes on the sides of buildings, hats on every head, Art Deco automobiles, raincoats, tuxedos, cigarette holders, Bourbon-on-the rocks, neon lights flashing through venetian blinds, shoeshine boys, speakeasy clubs with dancing-girls, black pianists and chanteuses in sequins, streetwise dames who gave as good as they got, and fast-talking, snarling guys who spoke in a slang that had the infectious rhythm of jazz, guys who’d shoot first and ask questions later.

The look was as startlingly distinctive as the dialogue, as was the music – stabbing strings that emphasised the intensity of the melodrama during the final scene; and someone always died in the final scene. These films opened with the credits and concluded with a simple ‘The End’; they rarely ran longer than ninety minutes; they lifted the young viewer out of the genuine horrors played out on TV news broadcasts and into a parallel past with comforting archetypes and clearly-defined boundaries that were easier to understand, not to mention far more seductive. The women were beautiful and the men were handsome because the cinematographers spent hours lighting the set before shooting actually began; this really was cinema as an art form, utterly separate from reality and re-imagining the world in a way that only the graphic novel is capable of doing in the 21st century.

The incredible on-screen presence of Cagney and Bogart or Crawford and Davis is a world away from the studied mumbling of contemporary movie icons. These were actors who had paid their dues on stage and always carried their voices to the back-row. They predated the Method, but the curious caricatures of real people they played seem just as authentic as the Method because they make perfect sense in the artificial construct of reality they inhabit – just as nobody in a comic book thinks it remotely odd that musclemen in tights engage in fisticuffs that leave their streets resembling war-zones. Who pays for the damage when the Incredible Hulk has a punch-up with the Thing? Who cares?

Children stumbled upon classic cinema in the 70s and 80s because there were no TV alternatives on a Saturday afternoon. Now there are, and it’d be interesting to see how many movie stars from the 30s or 40s any child today could name. Would they recognise Edward G Robinson or Barbara Stanwyck? Would they even recognise Laurel and Hardy? Some of these old stars were still alive when I was a child – and occasionally turned-up in a toupee on ‘Parkinson’; but a lot of them were long-dead. They were before my time, but of my time as well.

In a fragmented television landscape where anything other than talent contests, quiz shows, antique treasure hunts, house conversions and ‘maverick detectives’ hunting down serial killers have been reduced to niche interests and ghettoised via specialist channels, a child would have to seek out these movies now; I didn’t. A paucity of choice actually brought the viewer into contact with programmes only the converted would make the effort to track down today. I welcome the theoretical availability of choice in terms of channel numbers, but I’d like there to be a little more choice within the channels I can receive, not a schedule designed solely to give me more of what I’m already familiar with.

Hope has appeared, however, in the shape of a newcomer to the overcrowded digital TV landscape called Talking Pictures TV, which specializes in precisely this kind of celluloid entertainment; it’s already collected quite a cult following, which is encouraging. The world of ‘Double Indemnity’, ‘White Heat’, ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘Mildred Pierce’ remains as entertaining an alternative to what’s outside the window as any the 20th century invented. And still a bloody good alternative to sport.

© The Editor

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